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Fire chiefs plead for help

Paid emergency responders sought in Shenandoah County

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- New Market Fire Chief Robbie Smith said he's failing at his job.
He was one of several volunteer fire leaders to plead for paid staff during a Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors work session on the fiscal 2013 budget Thursday night.

Thirteen new firefighter/emergency medical service technicians are included in the $54 million budget proposed by Doug Walker. Shenandoah County Department of Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew had asked for 22 more employees as a means to provide "bare bones" coverage in New Market, Toms Brook, Conicville and Orkney Springs.

The 13 additional employees would cost about $700,000.

The supervisors were obviously smarting Thursday from public reaction to the proposed increased spending. Walker has suggested an 8-cent real estate take hike to balance a budget that would be about $5.6 million above this year's.

"A lot of people in Shenandoah County do not believe that we need 13 firefighters to staff New Market," District 3 Supervisor David Ferguson said. "I know it's this board's responsibility ... to provide safety and security to the citizens of Shenandoah County. There's a certain group of citizens that feel like we shouldn't be providing that."

New Market Fire and Rescue is asking for county-paid staff to provide 24-hour coverage at its station.

"Somebody's going to get hurt or killed," Smith said. "Here, about a month ago, we had a triple fatality at our first due. Was it our fault? No, I don't think so."

He was referring to the deaths of three people -- including an Ashby Lee Elementary fourth-grader -- killed in a Feb. 4 trailer fire on Smith Creek Road, just across the line into Rockingham County.

Smith said he and an engine driver arrived at the fire scene, and questioned whether they could've made entry had it been a two-story house on fire.

"Could we have done it safely?" he asked. "Absolutely not. I'm in a position where I'm failing as a fire chief. We don't have the people. More people are going out the door than are going in."

People don't have the time to volunteer anymore, Smith said.

District 4 Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli said New Market made the same request for help last year.

"We're having volunteers from other departments saying, 'No, it's not needed,'" she said.
Baroncelli said some volunteers are blaming career staff for driving out volunteers, and asked if Smith thought that was accurate.

"No, if it wasn't for the career staff, I don't know some times what we would do," Smith said. "We have a great relationship."

Baroncelli asked how the volunteers who felt like Smith could help the supervisors present the "true situation."

"I don't know, do we kill somebody, do we burn a couple houses down?" Smith said. "[Then,] they [would] wonder why the fire company didn't do their jobs. If it wasn't for the county staff we've got now, some days we wouldn't answer nothing."

Yew said Conicville and Orkney Springs had requested a staffed ambulance five days a week, and Toms Brook a staffed fire engine 24-hours a day five days a week.

Orkney Springs Fire and Rescue Chief Cletus Miller said he often is the sole provider of fire protection.

"Ninety-five percent of the time, I'm the only one on in daylight," he said.

Not everyone at the meeting supported funding more than a dozen new positions.

"From the perspective of the taxpayer, just the 13 people, the $700,000, that's a lot of money," said a Woodstock man who refused to give his name. "In 10 years, that's $7 million."

The resident, who said the previous speakers were a tough act to follow, said it comes down to a continuum of service, and wondered if there was a way to balance the coverage.

Ferguson asked Yew how much revenue an ambulance fee was expected to bring in. Yew said it's estimated to be $500,000 a year.

Those who say the county shouldn't pay for the extra firefighters should come to his fire hall, Toms Brook Fire President Richard Minton said. "I need help this weekend," he said.

"You know why they want to be a volunteer?" asked Minton, holding up a pager. "They want us to give them these so they know what's going on. We give them a pager, they never show up."

He said there are 23 EMS volunteers with his department, "but they won't run a call."
However, not all companies are struggling, Woodstock Fire Department's Scott Gray said. He said there is a risk some of the younger volunteers with his company will feel like county staff are taking "our call from us."

"If our younger generation feel that they come in there taking our calls, then what use is [it for] them to get up in the middle of the night," Gray said. "The volunteer companies that are strong, we would like to stay strong and rely on our volunteers as we can."
Yew said he didn't anticipate paid staff would be hogging volunteers' calls.

"Where we propose staffing are in very weak areas," he said. "Woodstock and Edinburg are both strong companies, but there are days when they hit some [volunteer] lulls, too."


If a fire station states that they need 24 hour staffing due to the lack of volunteers, then when does it stop becoming a VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT and should totally be taken over by the governing body. I can totally empathize with needing paid firefighters during the daylight hours; the time that most volunteers are unavailable due to work. But if you're stating that you do not have the volunteers to cover the nights/weekends, then what are the volunteers covering? I say if a volunteer department states they need 24 hour coverage, then the governing body should have control of all functions, it would actally save money. In the long run the money they allocate as a general fund to the departments would be used for salaries, and the volunteers wouldn't be spending money on needless equipment/vehicles, thus the governing body would only provide the necessary equipment and not spending money on all the 'bells & whitles' as volunteers do. I say, show me what the volunteers cover as far as, days/nights/weekends, and if they are not able to provide during any of these times then the governing body should provide the 24 hour coverage and take over the day to day operations of that department also.

USBC You obviously don't have a clue to how much it takes to keep a fire station going for a year. The average amount, yes I did say average, the county provides to a station would just cover a salary and benefits for one paid person. That would leave nothing for equipment or safety gear or equipment repair. That would also leave nothing to operate the station itself. What about utilities, fuel and other necessary items??? Doesn't sound to cheap now does it???

As a former volunteer of New Market Fire and Rescue Departments, let me start off by saying the volunteers spend most of their time doing fundraisers, and that usually isn't even enough to keep their doors open. All of you that are scared of your taxes increasing should probably be more concerned about what would happen if your house were to catch fire, or one of your loved ones fell ill and needed these services. Also, if the tax hike is so terrible, go ahead and run to your local volunteer rescue squad or fire department, go through hours and hours of training in your spare time, and volunteer yourself. If the county were to take over the volunteer agencies that need help, they would be spending way more than $700,000 per year to keep things running, and would still have to pay career personnel to answer your 911 calls. So, everyone of you that are complaining about your tax increase, needs to visit www.scfr.net and see exactly what you need to do to volunteer.

As stated previously most volunteers at various volunteer departments spend a lot of time doing fundraisers. The money obtained from these fundraisers go to pay for fire and rescue apparatus among other necessary equipment. A fire truck can cost upwards of $600,000 dollars. I would call this an essential piece of equipment, wouldn’t you? How about $200,000 for an ambulance with all the “bells and whistles” like band-aids, oxygen, and cots. It is easy to sit back and criticize what others are doing while you do nothing at all. In my opinion if you do not have enough gumption to stand up and volunteer don’t bother sharing your opinion on something you obviously know nothing about! Try this, go out to your nearest volunteer station, fill out an application, become a member and do YOUR part for your community by volunteering, then you will see what it is all about.

The need for and number of paid fire and rescue people in our county is a debate for folks smarter than I am. (I will note that one of our County Supervisors should not participate in discussions or votes about this issue because his son is part of the fire community.) What is missing in the debate is that our law enforcement people are just as important as our fire and rescue. But our Board of Supervisors continues to disrespect our Sheriff and his staff at the budget table by rejecting requests for additional staff and resources. Many observers feel the supervisors' actions are retribution for the Sheriff's opposition to the unpopular regional jail. By ignoring the Sheriff's valid budget requests, the supervisors are again showing their petty nature and, as a result, not protecting the best interests of county residents.

Give me , give me give me. Most volunteers now want the paid jobs. It's not about coverage, it's about what Yew has promised them.

With Yew having every station called out on every call in their area, no wonder the volunteers are worn down to nothing.

Old Clunker, you obviously have not a clue what is going on. Are you a volunteer? Are you a firefighter/EMT? Listen Yew is doing what is in the best interest for his department. Yes we are under hard times. Yes taxes will be increased. But you know what, if it is your house burning down, or you trapped in your vehicle, and you loose everything or are seriously injured cause the department in that first due cant make it out the door... Then what? You do not realize how many times one apparatus goes on a call and it ends up being serious. Now with that said, responding with one engine to a house fire, that is going to get someone hurt. Stop thinking about yourself and think about the people in these communities and the firefighters who protect them. Yew is just doing his job and trying to keep people in the county safe, INCLUDING YOU!

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